Reading Tanka

by Owen Bullock

Tanka have been written for about 1300 years. The 9th century collection the Manyoshu (Collection of Myriad Leaves) featured a number of “waka”, or short songs. These poems were written in a five-line structure, in 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. In the 14th century the practise of renga as a form of social, linked writing divided the 5-7-5 and the 7-7. The opening verse became known as the hokku, and eventually was more popular than the tanka itself. But each of these forms became rather exhausted after the time of Basho, until the greater availability of translations of Western poetry in the 1880s, which is said to have reinvigorated Japanese writing. Masaoka Shiki renamed the hokku haiku as the 20th century loomed, but, of course, the writing of tanka continued – it’s from this time that the term “tanka” came into use (waka more strictly refers to classical Japanese poems from the earlier period).

As many of you will know, Japanese onji are considerably shorter than English syllables, so that a haiku of 17 syllables in English borders on the verbose. It’s the same for the tanka form (I feel that the best explanation of the syllable issue is found in John Barlow’s essay in The New Haiku, ed. by John Barlow and Martin Lucas; Liverpool: Snapshots, 2003). Some practitioners see 3-5-3-5-5 as a good guide for length of a tanka, and because they like to retain the traditional short/long/short/long/long rhythm.

Tanka originally began with an image described in the first three lines, with the fourth and fifth lines being a philosophical reflection on that image, or conveying more personal information. A tanka is a short lyric. They were originally sung to a musical accompaniment and, however contemporary one’s style, should flow easily.

Naturally, there is often a pivot line in the tanka which connects this exterior event or description with the interior world. Often, but not always, this occurs in the third line. The first, or set-up line, is also important for creating tone and situation, so I’m mainly going to talk about those two facets.

The first, set-up line

one hour
before meeting your friend
my attention turns
to painting my nails
a careful, modern brown

Laura Maffei 1

The emphasis in this tanka is on time. Initially, the poet might be referring to almost any time-related event. So it’s open, but soon gets pinned down to a very specific detail. There’s so much here about preparation. It could take an hour to get the nails right. The choice of style is significant. It’s modern, but not way out, hence brown. The choice may have a lot to do with the first impression the nail-panter wants to make, or it could be steered by what she already knows about the visitor. This could say something about the anticipated tastes of the guest, or could really be what the nail-painter is most comfortable with. She takes a lot of time – that’s surely about her rather than the guest – or at least she thinks about the event well in advance. Presumably, the nails must be perfectly dry. On the other hand, does the time taken mean that this is an unfamiliar process? Then again the expression ‘my attention turns’ suggests a very careful person. So many questions – ‘one hour’ isn’t enough to answer them all. And then there’s all that time to consider. What is she thinking about for that hour? Why is this so important? Is the event really of no importance and she’s merely indulging a whim? My reading suggests that a little mystery goes a long way.

The first line of this next tanka has a scene-setting role:

rainy dawn
he skips between
rush-hour traffic
waving goodbye
to someone unseen

Fred Schofield 2

The time of day is important. He’s travelling perhaps, or just leaving for work. There’s a sense of energy and exuberance in the poem, as if he’s laughing, as if the person he waves to laughs with him.

the sun slips
behind the sea
every colour
I love and hate
floods the sky

John Barlow 3

This is a more disturbing poem. The first line gives the time of day. Something slipping behind the sea seems to imply a covert action, something someone might want to hide. But all the colour is there. The poem describes opposites, in quite extreme terms: love and hate; yet contained within those opposites are all the variations of life and colour. The poet has mixed feelings about someone or something.

sitting, watching
the sand
in the Zen garden
blow away . . .
this autumn wind

Stanford M. Forrester 4

The set-up here is tremendously simple, yet active. He is sitting and watching. He’s trying to suggest that the contemplative state is not just about “doing nothing”. But at the same time the sand in the Zen garden blows away. You almost hear the word “even” appended to “in the Zen garden”. It suggests that the poet’s contemplation has reached such a focussed place that he can contemplate the idea that the practise of Zen may in itself be no more than sand. This works in conjunction, I think, with the more obvious idea that life is like sand blowing through a garden.

The next poet begins with what might seem like a conceptual plan, from the point of view of the 21st century, but he is writing in the 10th century, and the facts are what’s important:

I went out in the Spring
To gather the young herbs.
So many petals were falling
Drifting in confused flight
That I lost my way.

Ki No Tsurayuki 5

He ends by giving an allegory for all of life.

Beginning with the single word & considering memories

your letter left out
in the rain . . .
if not for that small remorse
I might have forgotten you

Jeanne Emrich 6

The first line is a signal and a signpost. It acts almost like a title for the rest of the poem, and certainly as a theme: the finding of the letter assists the discovery of an emotion. This next tanka uses a similar technique, with the addition of a tactile sense about the first line:

as if it is one of
our memories
I leave the dent
in my straw hat

Machi Tawara 7

A memory equates with a dent – why? The hat has been damaged but it is left with character – an old hat (in the literal sense) is more interesting than one which has no “history”. In this case, the dent could be smoothed out, but the writer doesn’t want it to be, she wants the reminder. Perhaps, too, it suggests that humans sometimes prefer the unresolved.

smiling at me
without recognition –
the girl,
who thirty years earlier
stole my lunch money

Kathy Lippard Cobb 8

The crucial line here is the second. The woman still doesn’t recognise the speaker, most particularly she doesn’t, and didn’t, recognise the poet as a person; the present parallels the past.

It’s worth comparing this with another tanka that considers the way people are perceived and remembered:

all grown up
in the homeless shelter
children who sat apart
in the school

Linda Jeanette Ward 9

One might wonder at the isolation of the word “cafeteria”, but I think it’s meant to suggest that that’s where things really happened at school. If you weren’t popular there, no matter how well you did in class, your life could be miserable.

a bird in hand
the only pulse
a school bus
passes by

Fran Masat 10

The word “mine” makes a sudden link. How important is the perception of the poet? The expression “finger on the pulse” comes to mind. Was the bird killed by the bus, or did the bus pass coincidentally? What’s being remembered here? How are we learning? By considering the nature of death or by going to the classroom? The alternative use of “passes by”, as in “acts by”, may be another factor which shows the inescapable orientation of the human being. But there could also be a hint that the school children could learn from the words of the poet, as well as from some meeting with death itself.

This tanka has a simpler pivot and more sequential delivery; here, an event sparks a memory:

incoming tide
ripples the width of river
i remember
the touch of your hand
gentle on the nape of my neck

Janice M. Bostok 11

Pivots and ancestors

a green cabbage in two
like a sigh
slips out

Aya Yuhki 12

The crucial central line of the tanka suggests that the emotion is like a sigh, but it’s probably much worse. The alliteration seems to assist the release of the sigh.

I’ve not been
back since her
death –
flock of geese
minus one

Aurora Antonovic 13

We move from thoughts of “her” death to the suggestion of a death in nature: one goose is missing from the pattern. Perhaps she has observed the flock before, so that the omission is even more personal.

at the turn
of winter the last leaf
falls –
I know you would have stayed
if only you could

Aurora Antonovic 14

Another kind of death is coupled with the idea that the other might have stayed. But the central word even anticipates where the argument of the last two lines “falls” down. And speaking of arguments:

side by side
a pair of mallards cross
the shore –
just what was it
we were arguing about?

John Quinnett 15

This tanka captures that moment of distraction and the sudden realisation that what one was arguing about is forgettable. The central line defines a mid-point; not a cross-roads, but a shore – there’s something positive amidst the ridiculousness, a potential for growth.

Here are two tanka which concern understanding, or the searching of it:

among mosses
on an old stone wall
silence . . .
the closer I get
the more I find myself

Patricia Prime 16

The suggestion is that the silence encountered is the very thing that’s needed to get in touch with the self. And perhaps only a self that is “in touch” bothers to look at the moss on a stone wall. So the art of contemplation reinforces itself.

my handicapped student
reading Robert Frost
can’t understand
why anyone
would want a wall

Tony Beyer 17

This pivot is less obvious, as there’s no apparent break or pause in the poem, but the function is there in the third line. The pivot underscores the question the poem asks about who has the most understanding of the important things of life. Perhaps for the student, the walls are down in a good way, relating to openness, even though it would seem that there are barriers aplenty in this person’s life.

my ancestors
posed in their Sunday best –
in their eyes
the glint of disappointment
as if they know me

James Rohrer 18

This is partly about that eerie feeling you get from photos: it’s not just that you can perceive something in them, but that they can perceive something in you. This is an illusion, of course, they can’t look out at you. The poet also expresses concern over disapproval. These ancestors don’t know the poet, but he assumes that they will feel what others in the family have felt about him. So that the tanka is really about him and not the family. In this case, the use of the pivot “in their eyes” could be seen as an example of the unreliable narrator at work in literature – a technique which we employ when we take on another persona and give a deliberately incomplete picture of a situation so that reader can have the pleasure of arriving at a more balanced view.

in far Cornwall
the family names
on tombstones –
strangers who once were all
there was of me

Paul O. Williams 19

Is this a good bridge: “on tombstones”? I think so. What he’s looking back on is somehow anchored to death. Williams is talking about a tribal, once druidic, culture. He has passed beyond that culture and affiliation.

Of course, in the practise of the writing of tanka, techniques are often used unconsciously, but this is how things may appear from the outside looking in.



1: tangled hair 2, ed. by John Barlow (Liverpool: Snapshots, 2000), p. 19.

2: Presence #16, ed. by Martin Lucas (Sutton Bridge: Hub Editions, 2001), p. 12.

3: Presence #15 (2002), p. 35.

4: Presence #17 (2002), p. 3.

5: One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, trans. by Kenneth Rexroth (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 60.

6: Something Like a Sigh – Tanka Society of America 2005 Members’ Anthology, ed. by Jeanne Emrich (Maryland: Tanka Society of America, 2005), p. 33.

7: Ferris Wheel – 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka, trans. by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2006), p. 8.

8: Something Like a Sigh, p. 26.

9: Kokako #6, ed. by Owen Bullock and Patricia Prime, p. 8.

10: White Lotus #5, ed. by Marie Summers (Excelsior: Shadow Poetry, 2007), p. 28.

11: tangled hair 2, p. 11.

12: Something Like a Sigh, p. 65.

13: White Lotus #5, p. 28.

14: Ibid, p. 32.

15: Ibid, p. 22.

16: Presence #16, p. 8.

17: from ‘Mending’, Lynx XIX:1.

18: White Lotus #6, p. 22.

19: Something Like a Sigh, p. 63.

Editor’s note: Owen Bullock was born and bred in Cornwall and has lived in New Zealand since 1989. Bullock has won awards for his poetry and is widely published in New Zealand and overseas. He has been an editor of several magazines, including Poetry NZ and Kokako. He has published poetry, haiku, fiction and non-fiction. From 2015 he has lived in Canberra, Australia, where he is undertaking a PhD in creative writing. Read more at Owen’s Showcase page.